Word got out that Robert Mackle’s daughter Barbara, age 20, had been kidnapped in the early morning hours of December 17, 1968. Everyone in Florida and throughout the nation who knew of the Mackles was shocked and paralyzed. Their concern and fear during the early Christmas season of 1968 paralleled the emotions felt 36 years earlier when the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped and then found dead.
On Marco Island, in the Mackle brothers’ brand new development, no one could talk or think of anything but the kidnapping. It was as if a local child had been taken. All radios were turned on for the latest words; prayers were said and everyone was desperate for any good news.
After the bungled attempt to pick up the ransom monies of half a million dollars in $20 bills, the police found that the kidnappers had used a Boston Whaler stolen from the University of Miami Institute of Marine Sciences. In a nearby blue Volvo the police also found information on the two kidnappers as well as a photo showing Barbara Mackle holding a sign that said, “Kidnapped”.
The FBI quickly identified two suspects: Gary Steven Krist, a 23-year old escaped convict from California, who had grown up in Alaska; Ruth Eisemann Schier, a 26-year old biology researcher at the Institute, who was from Honduras.
Robert Mackle, worried that the kidnappers might think the police arrival at the pick up point was an ambush, put an ad in the Miami Herald for the kidnappers and got a call at 10:35 p.m. providing a new money drop location. Meanwhile, alarmed at the close call, Schier boarded a bus heading west to Austin, Texas for a planned rendezvous with Krist and their departure for Europe.
The second drop off succeeded. Krist got the money and drove north to West Palm Beach. There, using a fake name and $2,240 in $20 dollar bills, he purchased a 16-foot motorboat with plans to head west across Florida, 155 miles through the Okeechobee Waterway toward Ft. Myers, and then to cross the Gulf of Mexico to get to Texas for the planned rendezvous.
The marina owner, alerted by the national news and suspicious of a bearded man paying with only $20 dollar bills, called the police immediately after Krist towed the boat away. The FBI issued warrants for Krist’s and Schier’s arrests.
Nearly 15 hours after the ransom pickup, Krist called the FBI office in Atlanta and left a tip that Barbara’s burial site was near Duluth, Georgia. Teams of agents combed the woods until they spotted the ventilation tubes and dug with their bare hands until they uncovered the box containing Barbara Mackle. Late in the afternoon of December 20 she was rescued. After having spent 83 hours in dark, cold confinement, Barbara was in remarkably good spirits. She was finally freed: dehydrated, stiff and 10 pounds lighter. Barbara was flown in her father’s private jet back to Miami to be reunited with her family. In a short press interview she said she was treated humanely and felt “Absolutely wonderful”.
Meanwhile, Krist had covered over 100 miles traveling west by water across the state, and had gone through the St. Lucie Canal and across Lake Okeechobee; but shortly after Krist left the Caloosahatchee locks, the suspicious lock tender didn’t believe Krist’s story about the boat’s registration being lost, and finding out that he had repeatedly used the same story at all prior locks, called the police. Krist motored past Ft. Myers and then north out of the Caloosahatchee River into Charlotte Bay at the mouth of the Peace River. Soon police boats and helicopters were in hot pursuit, so Krist beached the boat and fled on foot into the mangroves on Hog Island. After 12 hours, with the island surrounded by FBI agents and police, Krist was finally handcuffed and caught by two Charlotte County deputies who had stalked him. In his pockets was $17,000, with an additional $480,000 found in the boat by FBI agents. With those sums, along with the $2,240 paid for the boat, only $760 was missing. Ruth Schier was still at large and became the first woman in history to make the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List.
On December 27 Time Magazine published the first of two stories entitled ‘The Girl in the Box’, with the followup story published on January 3, 1969. Richard Nixon met with Barbara and suggested that she write a book about her experiences.
Seventy-nine days after the kidnapping, a destitute woman identified as Ruth Schier was arrested in Norman, Oklahoma. She no longer looked like the bright University of Miami graduate student studying marine science, but instead was a scared and impoverished woman trying to apply for a job as a carhop. She was transported back to Georgia for trial, where Krist was already in jail preparing for his trial.
(To be continued)
Craig Woodward moved to Marco Island in 1968 and has practiced law in Collier County since 1980. For many years Craig has led a history tour of the Island for the Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Marco program. He also has a home in Everglades City and has a deep interest in local and Florida history. The Coastal Breeze News is delighted to feature his regular columns on Collier County history, to provide ‘essential information’ for new and old residents alike.